Phoenix Sun forward Charles Barkley, sage that he is, occasionally resorts to the Socratic method in interviews, questioning his questioners until they can figure out the answers for themselves. Asked to explain why he had produced a pedestrian 13-point performance in a victory over the mediocre Boston Celtics on Dec. 27, Barkley replied, "You have a Rolls-Royce and a Volkswagen, and you need to go to the supermarket. Which car do you drive?" Why, the Volkswagen of course, Charles. "Exactly," he says. "You don't drive the Rolls to the grocery store. You save it for the serious trips."
You don't drive the Rolls to the grocery store. For the Suns those are words to live by this season. Barkley is Phoenix's Rolls-Royce—although he's no longer in mint condition, thanks to a bulging disk in his back that may make this season his last—and as he surveys the woeful teams dotting the NBA landscape like so many A&P's, he feels the need to conserve his fuel for regular-season games against title contenders and for the playoffs. In fact, all the Suns are being careful not to put on too much mileage before they get to the important part of the road. That's as big a reason as any that Phoenix, despite its 21-5 record through Sunday, has operated in the shadows of its two leading rivals in the Western Conference, the Houston Rockets (24-4) and the Seattle SuperSonics (22-3).
Last season the Suns, with the newly acquired Barkley leading them to the best record in the NBA and the playoff Finals, were the talk of the league. But this year Phoenix's excellence has evoked few remarks. As hard as it is to believe of a team that features Barkley, the Human Sound Bite, the Suns have been largely ignored by the media. They haven't had a winning streak like Houston's 15-gamer or Seattle's 10-gamer, and they hardly qualify as a surprise team in the mold of the Atlanta Hawks and the Chicago Bulls. Yet, in its own way, Phoenix has been just as impressive as any club among that more celebrated foursome. The Suns' record is remarkable considering that all season they have been without their two top small forwards—Cedric Ceballos is sidelined with a broken left foot, and Richard Dumas is in drug rehabilitation—and that Barkley has at times shown the effects of his ailing back. Still, with the addition of forward A.C. Green, who has been especially important in the absence of Ceballos and Dumas, and the resurgence of point guard Kevin Johnson, Phoenix has stayed close to the Rockets and the Sonics in the race for the best record in the West. The Suns sent a message to those teams by beating both in the span of three days in late December.
"The other clubs deserve credit for what they've done," says Phoenix coach Paul Westphal, "but we've accomplished what we have without two of our key players. At the pace we're going, if some team is going to finish with a better record than ours, it's going to have to have an unbelievable year."
Sir Charles is less diplomatic. "Streaks don't mean anything," he says. "There are so many bad teams in the league this year that you're going to see a lot of streaks. You can win 10 straight games and only play one or two teams capable of beating you. Why are there so many bad teams? Because there are so many bad players."
Barkley and the Suns bring to mind Michael Jordan and the Bulls of last year: a superstar who finds it increasingly difficult to tolerate the tedium of the regular season and a team that realizes that the postseason home court advantage that comes with having the league's best record is helpful but not essential to winning the title. One could sense the Suns were smiling inside as they watched the Rockets and the Sonics burst out of the gate this season. "Never saw anybody win anything in November and December," says Barkley. And the sign atop the big-screen television in the Phoenix locker room in the America West Arena serves as a constant reminder of the Suns' biggest priority. It simply reads, WIN PLAYOFF GAMES.
"Last year we got fooled," Barkley says. "We thought that with the home court advantage we'd win the title because we're great on our home floor, but that gave us a false sense of security. The Bulls won their last two series against the [New York] Knicks and us without the home court advantage. It doesn't matter how good your record is, at some point you're going to have to win on the road in the playoffs if you're going to win a world championship. We're still going after the best record, but we don't have to have it to win the title."
The Suns do have to have Sir Charles, however, and it's clear at times that Barkley is ailing, especially when he plays games on consecutive nights. The disk injury causes pain in his legs as well as in his back, and he usually gets an anti-inflammatory injection after playing two days in a row. Following a win against the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 18, he needed shots in both legs for the first time. "Physically he hasn't been the same player, not night in and night out," says Phoenix guard Danny Ainge. "You can tell that there are some days that are worse than others for Charles just from the way he walks in the locker room. But somehow, when we need him to do something spectacular, he comes through."
Barkley's bad back hasn't stopped him from grabbing his clubs and heading for the nearest tee at every opportunity. "I'd rather give up basketball than give up golf," he says. And though Barkley, who will be 31 in February, adds that he's "99 percent certain" this year will be his last in the NBA, some members of the Sun organization have their doubts, partly because he is still playing the same number of minutes, about 37 per game, that he did last season and is still producing All-Star-caliber numbers, 24.6 points and 12.3 rebounds per game through last weekend.
The other reason some observers doubt Barkley's retirement plans are set is that he rarely describes those plans the same way twice. At one time he said he was definitely retiring if the Suns won the championship, then he was retiring whether they won it or not. then he was retiring unless there was a way to relieve his back pain without surgery. Last week he said he planned to get the opinions of three top back specialists after the season, "and if they tell me I can have the surgery and relieve all of my pain, then that would be something to consider. But anything short of that and I'd have to wonder whether I want to put myself through surgery. I'm looking forward to retirement. I can't wait to spend that first year doing nothing for a living."
But Barkley's physical condition isn't the only factor in his decision to retire. Twice within a two-week span in November he was accused of striking a fellow patron at the same Scottsdale, Ariz., bar. and those incidents strengthened his resolve to leave the limelight as soon as possible. Much has been made about Barkley's not letting fame imprison him the way it did Jordan, but even Sir Charles is growing tired of the constant attention. "I'd like to go out and not have to wonder if somebody's going to try to prove his manhood against me," he says.
Jordan visited Phoenix for a few days last month to film a commercial with Barkley, arriving and leaving with few people even knowing he was there. No press conferences, no crush of autograph seekers waiting for Jordan at an arena or a hotel. The freedom with which Jordan can now move about isn't lost on Barkley.
When Barkley hasn't been at his best this season, other Suns have usually been able to compensate, particularly Johnson, who has bounced back from last year, when he missed 31 games because of injuries. His frequent absences from the lineup hindered his ability to adjust to playing with Barkley. But this season Johnson is not only in sync with Sir Charles but also has played as well as any point guard in the league. "Last year Charles and I really didn't play that much together," Johnson says. "But now I feel I know what I can do offensively to take the pressure off him. I think we've found that we can coexist."
In the process Johnson has proved himself worthy of one of the three remaining spots on Dream Team II, which will represent the U.S. at the world championships in Toronto in August. It's no secret that his not being selected for either of the two Dream Teams has irritated Johnson. and although point guard Mark Price of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Steve Smith of the Miami Heat are already on Team II, it's hard to see how Johnson, with his combination of scoring and penetrating ability, can be left off the team this time.
Johnson has lifted some of the scoring load from Barkley, and Green, the former Los Angeles Laker who signed with Phoenix as an unrestricted free agent during the off-season, has helped with the rebounding, among other chores. The 6'9" Green, usually a power forward, was pressed into service as the starting small forward in the absence of Ceballos and Dumas, but he adjusted with ease, at least on the court. It was a little harder for Green, who became accustomed to a regimented approach during his eight seasons with the Lakers, especially when Pat Riley coached them, to adjust to the more-relaxed ways of the Suns.
"There aren't a lot of rules on this team, at least not in comparison to what I'm used to," Green says. "The first few practices I looked at guys joking around, and I wondered if these guys were serious, if there was real commitment here. But I've seen that there is, that everyone is dead serious when seriousness is called for."
And sometimes not a moment before. Last week it was about an hour before tip-off of a Sun home game against the Philadelphia 76ers, and Barkley was nowhere in sight. On some teams the absence of a superstar that close to game time would be cause for concern, but not in Phoenix, not with Barkley. "Chuck's probably pulling out of his driveway right about now," said a Sun staff member. A few minutes later Barkley sauntered into the locker room—and then left almost immediately for a television interview. When he returned, he and center Tim Kempton engaged in a little trash talk about golf. It was 45 minutes before game time, and Barkley hadn't yet taken his uniform out of his locker. "You can tell how worried we are about Philadelphia," he said. "We're more worried about our eight-o'clock tee times tomorrow."
But Barkley is one of those rare athletes who can appear blasè yet perform fiercely. He racked up a triple double—22 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists—in a 119-107 defeat of the Sixers. It was a reminder that whenever the Suns need a lift, the Rolls is gassed and ready to go.